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The Noble Heart

by Maggie

(This story takes place in the chronology of the Xenaverse after the events of DESTINY & THE QUEST, and the event now known as JUDGMENT DAY in the world of Hercules.)

Disclaimer: All these characters belong to MCA/Universal but the story here is mine. Copywrite to me, 1997. If you archive this story, please do not 'tinker'= ; I like it the way it is, please. But thanks for reading it.

Prologue ~~~

The day had turned sultry and uncomfortable. Humidity hung heavy in the air, making every step a tedious ordeal. It turned the winding path through the trees into an arduous trek. It also rendered conversation out of the question.

The effects of the heat were compounded by the crackle of static in the air. The current around them made the warrior less than cordial. Her leathers were sticking to her to her back and stomach. And the shin guards against her legs chafed with every step. Perspiration glistened across the high, chiseled cheekbones and covered the long slender arms.

Xena turned to her companion, the lovely, blond woman striding next to her. She could tell the heat was affecting the young girl as well. Her wheat colored hair was damp and straight, and wet tendrils stuck to her face and neck. The warrior studied the flushed, red face. Even the usually steady stream of words that identified her had ceased flowing from the young bard.

Gabrielle had a throbbing headache. The hot, sticky day had turned a dull tightness in her neck into a molten ache. She stopped walking and leaned heavily on her staff. The pounding behind her eyes made her dizzy. She closed the green orbs to try and steady her reflexes. When Xena noticed the girl was no longer beside her, she stopped and turned to face the young woman slumped against the walking stick.

"Are you all right?" the warrior asked, walking back toward the girl. She put a hand on the bard's shoulder. She could feel the heat radiating from the young body, even through the green bodice the bard wore.

Gabrielle turned a bleary gaze toward her friend. "It's just the heat", she said, her voice heavy with pain. "All of a sudden, I'm dizzy. And my head!" The girl put her hand to her temple. "It's just pounding."

Xena looked at the young face closely. There was more than the ordinary reaction to the humid atmosphere in the girl's expression. The warrior had a feeling Gabrielle was suffering from something more serious. She laid a gentle palm against the ashen face. The skin was warm, but damp.

"We'll stop for a while.", she told the girl. Xena let her gaze travel about the area. She recognized the locale. It was then she remembered the last time she had traversed this particular forest; she had been directing her army's deployment. For an instant, the warrior's jaw tightened. Then her thoughts returned to the girl beside her.

"There's a good, dry cave nearby." the warrior said. "It's cool and quiet. We can rest there." Xena brushed the moist hair away from the young bard's face. "Why don't you sit down for a while? I'll go find ...", the tall woman began.

At that instant a bright flash of lightning streaked across the sky above them. The suddenness of the charge surprised even the warrior. Fearfully, Argo reared and pawed the ground. The mare's eyes were wide with terror, her nostrils flared, her soft golden ears flattened against the sides of her head.

Xena turned her attention to the terrified animal. She reached for the reins that had been jerked from her hand by the horse's fearful prancing. Argo bolted backwards, then reared again and jumped away from the warrior. In the next moment, she launched herself into a full gallop and disappeared up the path.

Xena took an angry stride in the same direction, then stopped as another bolt of lightning splintered a tree next to her. Instinctively, the warrior shielded herself with her arms as the small branches and pieces of the tree showered over her. She fought against the raging wind which had suddenly risen, whirling the dirt and twigs from the path into her face, pitting her arms and neck.

After another second, another bright flash lit up the path. Xena heard a scream and whirled back toward the sound. Her heart plummeted when she saw Gabrielle lying face down on the path, her limp body pinned beneath a large tree limb that had been severed by the flash.

"Gabrielle!" the warrior shouted. She raced toward the injured young woman, covering her mouth with her arm as the wind continued to assault her with debris from the ground. When she reached the inert bard, the warrior used all her strength to lift the tree limb away from the girl.

Xena gently turned Gabrielle's body over and spent anxious moments examining the bard for injuries. She found no bleeding, no open wounds. Yet the girl was obviously unconscious. The warrior gently brushed the dirt and pebbles away from the young woman's face. There was no response.

"Gabrielle?", the warrior called, yelling over the vicious wind around them. "Gabrielle!", she shouted again. The girl remained motionless. Xena took the pale face in her hands. "Gabrielle!!" she tried yet again, and the girl's eyes fluttered slowly open. Supporting the girl's shoulders with one arm, the warrior shielded the bard's face with the other.

"Can you stand?" Xena asked the young woman. There seemed to be no recognition in the green gaze trained on her. "Hey!" the warrior yelled, gently shaking the stunned bard. The girl's eyes traveled toward the voice and finally rested on the blue eyes of the woman holding her. "Can you stand?" the woman repeated, watching the girl closely.

Gabrielle nodded and tried to stand as requested. Xena helped her up, then caught the trembling form as it slumped again. She picked up Gabrielle and tried to orient herself in the frenzy of the wind. A pelting rain erupted at that moment and the warrior steeled herself against the needle-sharp drops. She turned in the direction of where she remembered the cave to be and started walking, carrying the limp form of the bard in her arms.

The warrior had taken only a few steps when she noticed Argo trotting along behind them. She turned an irritated glare toward the animal, then realized she should be grateful the mare had elected to return. All their supplies were packed in the saddle bags lashed to the horse's back. She would need her medical reserves to help Gabrielle.

"Good girl, Argo", she said to the horse. "C'mon". Then the trio moved toward the cave.

Chapter One ~~~

Xena listened to the pounding storm shrieking outside the cave. The rumbling thunder echoed inside the enclosure. As the warrior watched, flashes of lightning streaked across the dark sky. In the bright peaks of light thrown across the cave's entrance, she could see sheets of rain beating down on the trees and foliage.

She turned toward Gabrielle lying on the blankets near the fire. The girl's state hadn't changed since they'd entered the cave. She was still unconscious and impassive. Xena had put the injured girl down onto the earthen floor and built the fire out of the dry kindling she found in the cave. Then she examined the girl again for any obvious wounds. She had found none.

The warrior had removed the rain-soaked clothing and wrapped the young woman in the warm blankets she had pulled from the saddlebags on Argo's back. She had dried the long blond hair, and massaged the girl's limbs in order to increase the lowered body temperature. Then she had dressed the bard in the warm, woolen shift the girl kept packed in their gear. During all her ministrations, Gabrielle had remained unresponsive.

Xena removed Argo's saddle and bridle. The animal, too, remained jittery because of the storm. The warrior rubbed the mare down and pulled up some grassy plants on which the horse could feed for the night. She gathered some rainwater in the small cooking pot from their supplies and emptied the vessel into one of the basin-like depressions in the cave wall. She watched as the mare buried her lips in the water.

The warrior set the cooking pot outside again and the driving rain refilled it in seconds. She retrieved the utensil and hung it over the bright flames near where the girl lay. She took the leaves of several dried herbs from her medicine pouch and pulverized them in the palm of her hand. Then she dropped them into the pot, adding small bits of dried beef and some roots she'd found near the mouth of the cavern. The warrior hung the pot over the fire and stirred the mixture with a piece of wood she'd stripped and cleaned with her knife. Now all she could do was wait.

Finally Xena removed her own wet clothing and her boots. She hung the leather outfit, gauntlets, armbands and footwear on a jutting piece of rock in the cave wall. She briskly rubbed her body and her long, black tresses with one of the clean pieces of cloth Gabrielle maintained with the rest of their regular gear. Then she spread the now-wet cloth on the cave wall next to her clothes.

From the saddlebags, she retrieved her extra linen tunic packed there and the long, heavy cape that Gabrielle had fashioned for her from a piece of woolen fabric they'd received from a grateful villager. She pulled on the tunic and unfolded the long cape. As she wrapped the warm garment around herself, the warrior's breast tightened as her thoughts turned to the brave, young woman who now lay unmoving near the campfire.

Xena turned to view the bard's small form, the soft blond hair, the lovely young face. The warrior walked back to the fire and sat down next to the her best friend's quiet figure. She reached out and touched the bard's soft cheek. The flesh was still feverish, the brow damp with perspiration. As she gazed at the injured girl, she felt a raging helplessness swelling within her. Then the warrior's eyes slowly filled with tears.

A loud clap of thunder brought Xena out of her contemplation. Argo whinnied and danced nervously at the intrusive sound. The mare's large brown eyes sought those of her mistress. Xena crossed the cave to the animal. She rubbed the sinewy neck with her hand and touched the soft, pink muzzle.

"Easy, girl", the warrior crooned. "It's just a thunderstorm." She scratched the mare's jaw and patted the powerful neck. "Relax."

Xena strode to the saddlebags she had spread on one of the large rocky clusters near the cave wall. She opened one of the pockets and withdrew a leather pouch. Inside she found smaller packages filled with dried fruit and bread. The warrior unwrapped one of the packets and put the contents into her mouth. She didn't taste the food, her mind was otherwise occupied. But she knew the nourishment would help sustain her for the vigilance which would be necessary during the night.

Xena settled her back against the wall of the cave nearest the fire, her sword resting next to her slender body. The warmth of the flames and the exertion of the recent hours began to lull her awareness. She let her head rest against the cave wall and took a deep breath. Without her intention, her eyes drifted closed for a single, tired moment.

Chapter Two ~~~

A chilling, shrieking laugh shook the warrior instantly awake. The steel blue eyes snapped open and scanned the interior of the cave. Xena jumped to her feet, her sword raised and ready. She looked around the enclosure, searching for the source of the maniacal laughter. Her instincts told her the sound had an unholy reference. Then she saw the figure that had materialized near the opening of the cave.

"Strife", the warrior sneered, advancing toward the villainous creature. "What are you doing here?"

The loathsome little god swaggered toward Xena, an arrogance in his manner.

"Well, Xena my pet", he snickered. "I've got a special night planned for you."

Xena maintained her position, her sword leveled at Strife, her eyes trained on the vile menace's face. Revulsion was clearly evident in the cold, blue gaze.

"What are you talking about?" she asked him.

The villain laughed again, and slowly turned toward Gabrielle's sleeping form. Xena quickly moved to block the little god's path. "Keep away from her." she warned him.

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about me, if I were you." Strife sneered at Xena. "She'll be leaving you soon enough on her own." The repulsive white face grinned at the young woman, then turned vengeful eyes toward the warrior.

"You still haven't said what you're doing here. Doesn't Ares have some snippy little errand for you somewhere?" Xena jeered at the petty creature. She watched the callous little god recoil from her insult.

"Well, I've devised a sure fire way to get back into Uncle's good graces." He swaggered toward the warrior again. She moved as he did, keeping her sword raised between them. "See, you and your friends foiled my brilliant plan to kill Hercules," Strife spat out, his insolent smile replaced by a vengeful scowl.

"Tough luck." Xena taunted him. "For you, I mean." she sniggered. The disgusting little god's face became hateful and malevolent.

"Well," he sneered at the warrior, "I've come up with the perfect plan for paying you back and regaining Uncle's favor at the same time. I'm going to bring you, his favorite warrior, back into the fold again." The chalk-white face emitted the venomous giggle again as he rubbed his hands together.

Xena scoffed away the remark. "In your dreams, you little creep." she ridiculed the venomous creature. "There's no way I'll ever ..."

"Oh, yes you will," the creature goaded. "When I get through with you, you'll want it all over again." His skulking stance made the warrior's flesh crawl. He turned away from Xena and swaggered across the cave. She watched him carefully, her sword still level in front of her.

"You know", the little god began, "if your 'little friend' over there really knew you, really knew all the things you've done, she'd leave you in a minute."

Xena's eyes narrowed with hatred and anger. "Gabrielle knows all about that," the warrior said, a shade of her own anxiety coloring her remarks. "You can't scare her away." she said to the villain. "We're friends."

Strife laughed again and winked at Xena menacingly. "We'll see." he giggled. The miscreant raised pointed fingers above his head, then trained one digit directly at the warrior.

An instant later, Xena felt an excruciating bolt of energy crash through her body. She wailed as the charge threw her back against the wall of the cave. While she was held there helplessly, she watched Strife throw a similar charge into Gabrielle. The girl's unconscious body stiffened and a tortured moan emerged from the bard's throat. For a moment, the creature held both women in his grasp.

Finally the sinister god released the warrior and she fell to the floor of the cave, unable to move or utter a sound. An instant later, he released Gabrielle. The girl's body went limp again, arms outspread at her sides, her head turned away from Xena. With another shrill, evil laugh, the vindictive little god disappeared. Then the warrior's vision went totally black.

Chapter Three ~~~

When the warrior regained consciousness, she found herself lying on her stomach near the cave wall. She tried to rise from earthen floor and winced at the soreness in her body. Immediately she looked toward Gabrielle, still inert on the blankets near the fire. As soon as she could move, Xena crawled to the injured girl's side. She checked the small form for any evidence of damage caused by Strife's evil enactment.

Gabrielle appeared unharmed, her breathing coming just slightly faster than before. The warrior shook her head, trying to gather her resources again. She looked around the cave for the evil little god, but found he had gone. Xena made a hard effort to clear her senses. She drew all the strength she could manage and focused her attention on Gabrielle. The girl seemed to be sleeping as quietly as she had since first falling asleep.

Xena dragged herself upright and struggled toward the opening of the cave. She let the cape fall to the ground and, bracing herself against the glassy sheets of the rain, she took a few steps outside into the inclimate weather. She gasped as the hard droplets pelted her skin, awakening her reason and reinstating her awareness. After a few moments, she stumbled back into the cave, her mind somewhat clearer and more secure.

When the warrior reentered the enclosure, she drew the cape back around herself and stroked the water out of her long, raven hair. Pulling the warm material tightly, she walked slowly back toward the fire glowing in the circle of rocks. She bent down to pull the blankets around the sleeping bard again, and added some logs to the fire. Then she sat down cross-legged against the wall of the cave nearest the girl.

Xena spent several moments staring into the flames, trying to sort out the episode with Strife. She made a hard effort to focus her thoughts, trying to recall the precise words of the vile creature.

'If your little friend really knew you,' he had taunted her. 'Really knew you, really knew you'. The hurtful words echoed in the warrior's heart like the stinging stroke of a stiff lathe. Xena turned a sad glance toward the friend she'd come to treasure most in all her life. She studied the gentle face and swallowed around the tightness clutching at her throat.

"Maybe he's right after all." the warrior said quietly. "Maybe you wouldn't want to stay with me, if you knew everything I've done." Xena rested her head against the cave wall. She gazed unseeing at the darkness outside the cave, tears welling up in her crystal, blue eyes. She pulled the woolen cape around her shivering body and steeled herself against the shame and remorse that threatened to undermine her will whenever she dropped her guard.

The nightmares, the ugly memories, had always invaded her sleep and sometimes even her waking contemplation. Gabrielle had been her haven, a place to rest her soul where there was no recrimination, no blame, no punishment. The girl had never required that she divulge any of her past wickedness, never asked probing questions about the barbarity of the warrior's former life.

There had always been only trust and caring in the young woman's heart for the warrior whose soul needed healing. And there had never been another whom Xena trusted so completely. Even her friendship with Hercules did not compare with the encompassing devotion she felt for Gabrielle. This gentle, honest young women had brought a peaceful contentment into the warrior's life that Xena had never known.

Now, as she looked into the orange flames of the fire, it seemed bitterly ironic to the warrior that, of all places the Fates could have brought them on this stormy night, they had cruelly selected a place most certain to revive some of the most horrendous memories of the warrior's past. This particular cave had it's own unpleasant history in the life of the woman staring at the fire. And, somehow, Strife had known that.

Xena began to reminisce about the past events concerning the stony shelter. She remembered how she had found the cavern while searching for a place to house her wounded men. There had only been a few to concern her; it had been an easy conquest, one with very little loss to her or her followers.

The visions of the small village that, at one time, had existed just below the ridge outside the cave made the warrior's jaw tighten. Her army had easily eliminated the quaint little town, killing most of the men and leaving the survivors without sustenance, shelter or hope. It had been a ruthless annihilation of a peaceful little community; it remained one of her most painful recollections.

In her mind, Xena could see herself riding down on the village. She relived mounting her horse at the head of her army and calling to them to follow her lead. She saw the mighty warrior she had been, cape flowing and sword drawn, screaming at her men, "Let's Go!" The scene in her remembrance seemed to be occurring at that very moment. She couldn't close her mind to the devastation. The memory of the heinous rampage held her immobile and riveted her attention.

She saw herself leading the men in a thunderous attack down the embankment toward the tiny town. Their horses hurtled over the small stone wall at the edge of the borough as members of the village scattered in terror. Arrows from her archers whistled around her as she watched innocent people in the town fall, either dead or wounded. Women and children were screaming, running for their lives. And her army kept coming.

Xena grimaced as she saw one of her men swing his sword at the chest of one of the villagers. An instant later, the man fell dead, blood covering his tunic. The warrior from her army galloped forward and killed an old peasant by running the man through. She watched as a woman running with the elder stumbled and fell, then was trampled by the soldier on horseback. The warrior moaned and dropped her head in her hands.

Xena tried to force herself to end the memory, but her will was slipping away. Even with her eyes tightly closed, the scene in her mind remained clear and devastating. This was a terrible nightmare she'd relived many times. She had always been able to stop it on those nights. This time, it was different. The visions were now invading her sanity, attacking her senses and threatening to drive her mad.

In the apparition she saw herself draw her horse to a stop and jump down to the ground. "Surrender or die!", she screamed at a villager running toward her.

"Never!" he answered and she watched herself thrust her sword into the man's chest. Another man challenged her and she drove her fist into the man's throat, crushing his windpipe and killing him instantly. Agonized, she relived her savage and brutal performance, slashing, punching, victim after victim, one figure after another until she stood alone among the dead.

Xena shuddered in shame as her mind recalled the devastation to the town. She tried desperately to end the memory, but her mind seemed locked on the brutality. Finally the warrior pounded the wall of the cave with her fists. "NO!" she screamed. "Leave me alone!", she pleaded, speaking as though the vision were a creature in and of itself. "STOP!" the woman shrieked and fell onto the earthen floor, trembling and broken-hearted. Her chest felt tight and painful. Her breathing was labored, her entire body ached. Finally her mind began to clear. She drew in gulps of air, straining to recapture her balance. The memory dispersed, like mist blown away by an approaching wind. Xena's mind went blank, but before the darkness surrounded her, she heard Strife's evil laugh echo through the cave.

Chapter Four ~~~

Xena opened her eyes, trying to focus. Her face was covered with perspiration and she felt as though she'd been beaten with a heavy weapon. For a moment, she tried to gather her thoughts. She could smell the earthen floor under her face. And her tunic was drenched in sweat.

The warrior raised herself up onto her hands and knees. There were scrapes and cuts on her palms and on her arms. Her head was pounding. She pressed the heel of one hand to her temple. The points of light behind her eyes subsided and her breathing became more regular. She drew a shallow, shaky breath and sat down on the cave floor.

For a moment, Xena was confused and disoriented. She didn't remember how she had arrived in the cave, nor why she'd come there. She let her eyes travel around the enclosure. She saw Argo, then her clothing. Finally the blue gaze fell upon the sleeping girl near the glowing coals from the campfire. In an instant, she recognized Gabrielle. She started to regain control of her senses.

The warrior stood up, then put her hand on the stone wall to steady herself. She started unevenly toward the young woman. When she reached the girl, Xena knelt down next to the sleeping form. She placed her hand against the girl's face. The bard stirred slightly and her eyes fluttered open. There was a moment of confusion in the green eyes, then she recognized her best friend.

Xena's tired face softened at the girl's shaky smile. "Hello, there." the warrior said to the bard, her voice gentle and soft. "How are you feeling?"

The young blond woman blinked her eyes, a weary cast dulling their usual sparkle. Xena took the girl's hands and helped her sit up. Gabrielle immediately grimaced at the pain rampant across her forehead and cried out in pain. She put both her hands against her head and sank down toward the blankets again.

"You had a fight with a tree limb." the warrior quipped as she lowered the bard back onto the bedding. Gabrielle cast a skeptical gaze at the blue eyes. "It won." Xena finished, hoping her attempt at humor was comforting to the girl.

"I'd say so.", the young woman whispered, closing her eyes again. Then she squinted up at the warrior's face. "Are you OK?", she asked concerned. "You look a little..."

"I'm fine." the warrior said quickly. "Just a bit damp from the rain." Xena sat down and curled her long legs in front of her. "Do you think you could eat something?" she asked the bard, concerned. She watched the young woman fighting against the pain in her head.

"Gabrielle?" she asked. The green eyes slowly traveled toward the warrior. "Could you get some broth down?" A gnawing panic was tightening Xena's stomach. She took one of the small hands in her own, but the girl was already slipping back into unconsciousness. "Gabrielle?", she said, fear in her voice. But the bard was quiet. Xena touched the young face with the back of her fingers. The skin was clammy and feverish. She stroked the soft cheek, then released the girl's hand.

Xena pulled the cape around herself again and huddled close to the fire. She absently listened to the rumbling thunder outside the cave. In the fury of the storm, she imagined she could hear the screams of the villagers in the small town that had once been a handsome, quiet little hamlet. The nightmare of it's death was rekindled again in the warrior's mind. She pressed her hands against her head to try and stem the retrospection. But the vision was replayed once more in her memory.

Only one of the remaining villagers occupied a specific space in Xena's memory. There had been a young girl, very like Gabrielle in appearance and in her simple, open nature. The child had been found hiding in the burnt-out shell of her destroyed home, terrified and defenseless. As was the usual procedure, a member of her army had brought the shaken girl to Xena for a decision on the youngster's fate.

The soldier pulled the young girl along roughly, his gloved hand tight on her slender arm. When they reached the warrior, he shoved the child ahead of him and she stumbled forward, falling on her hands and knees at Xena's feet. The tall woman looked down at the slim form, the ragged, dirty clothing and the matted, wheat-colored hair. After a moment, the girl raised her eyes to meet the cool, blue glare of the warrior.

"What's your name?" Xena asked the girl. The child looked down at the ground again. The warrior reached down and lifted the youngster to her feet. When the girl was standing upright, she still focused her gaze on the warrior's boots. Xena put a crooked finger under the girl's chin and raised the face upward to meet her own gaze. The green eyes in the dirty face showed concern, but not fear. The warrior's grim face lit with a crooked smile.

"You have a name, don't you?" she asked the girl again, softening her tone a bit.

The youngster's gaze traveled over the tall woman's face. She lifted her chin from the warrior's hand and pulled her face away. For several seconds, the two studied each other, the girl taking in the tall woman's armor and weapons, the warrior admiring the girl's proud stance.

"Corinna." the girl said at last. "My name's Corinna."

Xena dismissed the soldier who had produced the waif and turned back to the child. The girl waited, staring forward, while the warrior's gaze traveled over her. She didn't move; she stood stock still, without a single movement to her slim form. When Xena looked into the young face again, the girl's green eyes openly met hers.

"Can you cook?" the warrior asked the girl. A slight glimmer of confusion slipped across the smudged young face. She looked away for a moment, then returned her gaze to the tall woman's blue eyes. The girl nodded, 'Yes' and blinked as a wave of fatigue washed over her slight form. She brushed a grimy hand across her eyes as the warrior reached to steady the frail youngster.

Instantly the girl restored herself. She looked down at the woman's hand on her arm, then glanced up into the hard, blue eyes that were watching her face. Corinna swallowed hard and willed herself to stand upright. She drew a shaky breath and clamped her teeth together. She vowed she would not let the warrior woman see her cry.

Xena released the slender arm and stood back to consider the fragile-looking child standing defiantly before her. Even the warrior's frozen heart seemed willing to give the proud youngster a kernel of credit. 'The girl's got pride' the warrior admitted grudgingly. 'I'll give her that.' She pursed her lips and perched her gloved fists on her hips.

"Good." Xena said to the girl. "You can cook for me from now on." The warrior watched as the girl reacted to the statement. Whatever she was expecting the child to do, it was not at all what she saw happen. Slowly the green eyes traveled up the woman's leather-clad form until they came to rest meeting the warrior's harsh blue gaze. After a few moments, Xena saw a flicker of challenge light the haggard face.

"I'll cook." the girl said, her tone stony and cold. "But one day, I'll leave." she told the woman. The girl's eyes held the warrior's. There was no threat to her comment; Xena recognized the simple ring of truth in the child's remark. A glimmer of admiration broke Xena's cold, cynical expression. The warrior's face lit with a tiny smile. But the girl's expression remained noble and proud.

She took the girl's slim shoulder and propelled her toward another of her men. "Take her to my horse." Xena told him. "And spread the word." the warrior said, her eyes cold and threatening. "She's off-limits. To everyone. Understand?" The soldier cast a disinterested look at the scruffy, skinny girl and shrugged his shoulders.

"Right." he said to the warrior and lifted the child under his arm. He turned and walked toward Xena's horse, taking the unprotesting girl with him. When he reached the animal, he lifted the youngster into the saddle and forced her hands onto the large horn at the front.

"Hold on, kid." he told the girl and the child followed his orders. After a few moments, the warrior woman strode up to the horse and climbed up behind the girl. Xena rode away from the destroyed village with the girl in the saddle in front of her. Even then, she recalled, she could never quite decide why.

Chapter Five ~~~

Corinna clutched the saddle horn as she bounced in the saddle atop the great horse. The warrior woman was holding her, one strong arm around the her waist, but the saddle was much wider than the youngster was used to occupying. The woman's grasp was secure. For some strange reason, Corinna trusted the warrior not to let her fall. Still, large horses like this one had always frightened the girl.

Soon they arrived at the warrior's camp. The tall woman slid down off the saddle and reached up to the youngster still atop the horse. The girl let go of the saddle horn and moved herself toward the outstretched arms of the woman on the ground. Xena swung the slender body down easily, then set the girl's feet under her. She placed a gloved hand on the child's shoulder and turned toward one of her men.

"Take her to my tent." She nudged the girl toward the soldier and watched as the man led the child toward her lodgings. Xena's gaze followed the pair across the compound, then the warrior took the horse's reins and handed then to another member of the camp. "See to my horse." she instructed the young soldier. The boy took the reins and led the horse away.

The warrior strode toward her tent, drawing off her leather gloves. As she walked, she grappled with her decision to bring the girl back with them. 'What the devil am I going to do with a skinny peasant girl?' she chided herself. 'Must be getting soft.' the voice in her head told her. When she arrived at her lodging, she shrugged off the confusing thoughts. 'Anyway, she can cook.' the warrior told herself. Then she went inside.

During the next few months, the young girl and the warrior each invested in a stilted, but worthy association. Whenever the woman was gone from the camp, the youngster maintained the living quarters which they both occupied. Xena had one of her men fashion a small, comfortable cot in her tent for the girl. Corinna slept there every night, quietly accepting her place as the warrior's attendant.

Xena had provided the youngster with clean clothing, boots and small, warm woolen cape. After one particularly profitable raid, the warrior had even presented the girl with a small, silver buckle, decorated with delicately painted designs She had tied a slim piece of leather across the back of ornament so that Corinna could use it as a clasp for her long, blond hair.

The girl had shyly accepted the gift, favoring the warrior with a grateful, although rare, smile. She wore the accessory proudly every day afterward. The warrior felt an odd pleasure in the youngster's joy at the simple present. The child's gentle loyalty soon became a source of tranquillity and peace to the angry combatant. Although neither spoke of it, both viewed the situation as, if not comfortable, at least acceptable.

Corinna prepared the warrior's meals, kept her lodgings clean, even managed to establish a budding friendship with the great mare the warrior rode. The animal soon became accustomed to the presence of the small figure in her stall. The girl brought the horse pieces of apples and carrots. She spent time brushing the long, silvery mane and tail. Soon the powerful steed greeted the quiet, gentle girl with a welcoming whinny whenever the child came to visit her.

One night, when Xena had returned from one of the army's especially ruthless raids, the warrior entered the tent with an irritated stride. The maneuver had resulted in much less cache than she had expected, and she knew the men were growing disgruntled and edgy. Once inside the shelter, the warrior threw down her sword and wrestled angrily with her gauntlets and arm bracelets.

Corinna watched the woman's agitated behavior from her cot. The green eyes fixed on the warrior were nondescript and unemotional. Xena noticed the girl's silent stare and turned to address the speechless witness to her rage.

"What're you looking at?" she snapped at the youngster. Corinna's eyes remained fixed on the warrior's furious face, her manner as calm as ever. After a moment, the girl rose from the cot and retrieved the leather gauntlets from the floor of the tent where Xena had flung them.

Wordlessly the girl reached under the corner of the fur blanket covering the bed and withdrew one of the arm bracelets. Her eyes searched the floor for the other leather piece. When she located it, she bent and picked it up. Finally she laid all four of the items on the low bench at the foot of the bed. Without meeting the warrior's eyes, the girl moved behind the tall woman and began to unlatch the hooks the held her metal body armor in place.

Xena stood motionless as the young woman silently removed the protective appliance from her back, then moved around in front of her to lift off the piece in front. The warrior's rage slowly subsided as she watched the small figure lay the metal panels on the bench next to her gauntlets and arm bracelets.

Corinna moved to stand again before the warrior. The green eyes met the blue gaze of the tall woman for a moment, then drifted toward Xena's leather shin guards and boots. The girl glanced at the blue eyes again, then knelt down in front of the warrior, placing a small hand on one of the lacings covering the woman's legs. She raised a questioning gaze toward the warrior's face.

Xena sighed and sat down heavily on the bed. Corinna reached toward the leather shin guard on the warrior's right leg and began to loosen the thongs which held the apparatus in place. Before she could finish the task, Xena reached down and covered the small hands with her own. The green eyes of the girl met the blue eyes of the warrior.

"Go to bed" Xena said, sharply. "I'll do it." The youngster's gaze held the woman's eyes a moment longer. Then the girl moved away, stood up and returned to her cot.

Xena watched the girl lay down and pull the blankets up over herself. For some undefined reason, the hardened warrior succumbed to a faint wave of guilt concerning her selfish treatment of the youngster. She waited until the girl had settled under the covers. Then she spoke to her.

"Corinna." the warrior began. The child's gaze met the blue eyes. "Good night." the woman said.

The young face broke into a subtle smile, then the green eyes closed.

Chapter Six ~~~

"Good night.", Gabrielle whispered. The sound startled the warrior leaning against the cave wall. Xena quickly moved to the bard's side to confirm the muffled words. By the time she reached her, however, the young woman showed no signs of having uttered any sounds at all. The warrior touched the girl's face again. The cheek felt even hotter than before and now a glaze of sweat glistened on the quiet countenance.

Xena crossed the cave and withdrew another of the clean pieces of cloth from the saddlebags hanging on the outcroppings of the cave. She plunged the cloth into the reservoir she'd poured for Argo and squeezed the excess water from the material. Xena returned to Gabrielle and laid the cool cloth across the girl's hot forehead. She became even more worried when the cloth immediately turned warm as well.

The warrior filled the water pouch from the make-shift trough and carried it back to where the bard lay. As she approached her, Xena noticed that the girl was shivering, mumbling incoherently. She laid a trembling hand on the girl's shoulder. Gabrielle's green eyes fluttered open, then closed numbly again.

"Gabrielle?" the warrior called. But the young bard didn't respond. Instead she turned her head away and slipped again into immobility. Xena pulled the blankets around the quivering girl, then pulled off the woolen cape and laid it on top of the covers. Finally the girl seemed to relax again. Her body stopped shaking and she ceased the muddled language that Xena had heard earlier.

The warrior watched the quiet form for several agonizing minutes. There was no change in the young woman's state. Xena felt a deep fear envelope her. She had always dreaded the day when something would take Gabrielle from her. The warrior clenched her fists and clamped her teeth together. She strode angrily across the cave, her body tense and frightened. Then she spun around to face the spot where the evil little god had first appeared.

'She'll be leaving you soon enough on her own.' he had taunted her. Could this be what he meant? Xena turned to the injured girl again. "No" the warrior cried out. "This isn't 'on her own' you fiend! This is your filthy work!" For a long moment, the tall woman stood in the middle of the cave, her slender form shaking and terrified. She could feel her heart pounding under her tunic as she fought to regain her composure.

Xena steeled herself against the panic churning in her stomach. 'Stop it!' she chided herself. 'You're just helping him! He's a vile, cruel little beast. Don't let him win!!' She strove to close her mind to the desperate horror that threatened her reserve. She swallowed hard and trained her view on the wall of the cave.

Using the valiant will that had sustained her all of her life, the warrior concentrated on the lovely memories she carried in her heart of the young woman sleeping on the blankets behind her. She let the beautiful visions of Gabrielle and their unshakable friendship wash over her mind. Soon she felt the ache within her disburse and a healing calm settled into her soul. The deep, abiding warmth of her best friend's trust soothed her raging torment.

Xena opened her fists and relaxed her shoulders. She wiped the perspiration from her face and blinked away the tears that had welled up in the crystal blue eyes. Taking a deep, cleansing breath, she turned around and focused on the sleeping bard. She moved toward the girl with a purposeful stride.

The warrior lifted the water pouch to her lips and swallowed. The cool water refreshed her and sharpened her reflexes. She sat down again in her place against the cave wall. She leaned forward to check the blankets and the cape wrapped around the sleeping girl. Then she settled against the wall again. 'It's going to be a long night', she told herself. It didn't matter; she was ready for whatever came next.

Chapter Seven ~~~

Gabrielle pulled off the blankets and rose from the cot. The warrior woman was still sleeping, sprawled across the bed on the other side of the tent. The girl studied the slender form for a few minutes. The woman was certainly beautiful enough. She had the bluest eyes the youngster had ever seen. But sometimes the orbs turned cold and hard. Other times they actually blazed the color of gray steel. Yet, the young woman had to admit, the warrior had repeatedly been kind to her.

The girl drew on the soft tunic and leggings the warrior had given her. Then she slipped her feet into the strong, leather boots that sat next to the cot. The morning had barely begun. It was time to prepare the woman's breakfast. Gabrielle enjoyed this part of her prescribed duties. It gave her a chance to experiment with different herbs and roots. And the warrior woman always seemed to appreciate her efforts with the food.

As she watched the mixture in the cooking pot bubble, the girl glanced around the encampment. Most of the men in the warrior's army were still asleep as well. They had been away most of the night, occupied with another violent attack, the girl thought. She had long since decided not to think about what the warrior did when she was away from the camp. It was the only way the girl could keep herself from going mad.

The muted sounds of the men's snoring filtered into the compound. The men left her pretty much alone. Thanks to the warrior women, she reminded herself, the soldiers gave her a wide berth. Gabrielle had to admit; it was one of the many kindness for which she had grudgingly given the warrior credit. Her life could have been quite different had the woman not issued the stern orders. Still the warrior was a ruthless conqueror. That was also a fact.

From her vantage point on the floor of the cave, the bard watched herself stirring the contents of the cooking pot in Xena's camp. It was a very unnerving experience. The young woman's senses were bewildered and confused by the tremulous visions that had coursed through her mind during the night. They had left her weak and rendered her spirit wounded and despondent.

She had witnessed the merciless attack by Xena's army that had destroyed her village. She had seen herself cowering in the charred remains of her burnt-out home, watched with horror as the soldier in Xena's army had found her, shaken with fear when he dragged her before the warrior woman standing arrogantly at the center of town.

Gabrielle had listened, fascinated, to the conversation between Xena and herself.

"Gabrielle" she heard herself answer the warrior woman. "My name's Gabrielle."

The nature of the woman in this vision was the complete opposite of the warm, loving friend she had come to know. The girl had soon realized that the Warrior-Xena was not a person she would have chosen as a companion; this was a creature the bard would have easily despised.

Yet, the girl decided, this Xena had shown her compassion and decency all the same. The warrior had provided her with clothes, shelter, even given her a gift. She touched the silver adornment tied in the back of her hair. 'How could this same woman be responsible for such terrible deeds?' the bard asked herself. She shook the blond head. It was too complicated for her to try to figure out.

Gabrielle lifted the pot away from the fire. She continued to mix the contents as she walked back into the large, canvas tent. Once inside, she set the pot down on the small table and pulled the warrior woman's eating utensils out of the leather bag where they were stored when not in use. The aroma of the herbs in the broth awakened the sleeping warrior. The girl heard the woman stir in the bed behind her.

Xena turned a sleepy eye toward the girl standing next to the table in her tent. She watched as the youngster spooned out a hearty serving from the pot into the bowl in front of her. Whatever the mixture was, it smelled wonderful. The warrior raised herself up, supporting her weight on her slender, bronzed arms. When the girl turned around, the warrior's sleepy face was smiling.

"What smells so good?" she asked the girl, who, as usual, only smiled faintly back at her.

Gabrielle picked up the pot again and met the warrior woman's blue gaze. "It's broth." she told the woman. "From last night." The girl strode through the flap of the tent, carrying the pot back to the fire outside.

Xena stretched her long limbs and pushed off the fur blanket. She rose from the bed and strode across the tent to retrieve the long, woolen cape the girl had fashioned for her from a bolt of cloth that had been part of a previous raid's profits. The morning air had a crisp bite to it and the cape felt good against her skin. The warrior turned and walked to the table.

The youngster had also laid out a plate of fruit and a large decanter of ale. There was a good-sized piece of bread sitting next to the bowl of broth and a small brick of cheese. As the warrior sat down, the girl returned through the opening. Xena glanced at the young face, noting again how fresh and natural the countenance always appeared.

Gabrielle moved to the bed and began to smooth the wrinkled coverings on which the warrior had lain. She pulled the fur blanket up over the bed and brushed the pelt briskly with her hands. The girl crossed the tent and picked up the warrior's leather battle tunic from the floor where the woman had dropped it, and placed it ceremoniously on the bed. Finally she retrieved the warrior's boots and placed them on the floor next to the bed.

Xena watched the ritual with an interested eye. The girl's vigilance to her duties never ceased to amaze the warrior. Even the most the menial tasks seemed not to bother the young woman; she accepted the chores and performed them without rancor or protest. The warrior began to harbor a grudging admiration for the youngster. She wondered if she could have demonstrated the same courage if she'd been in the child's place.

Gabrielle knew the warrior woman was watching her. The woman seemed to be doing that quite often lately. She wondered if there was something wrong with the way she was performing her duties. The girl turned nervously toward the woman, an unspoken question in her eyes.

Xena read the concern in the green gaze. She stopped chewing the cheese in her mouth and concentrated on the young face turned toward her. "What?" she asked the girl, expecting the youngster's request for some kind of information. She watched as the girl recoiled slightly from her gruff tone and lowered her eyes from the warrior's blue gaze.

Gabrielle turned toward the small cot in the corner of the tent. No matter what level of kindness the warrior woman had displayed towards her, the mercurial nature of the combatant still frightened her. She was always afraid of incurring the woman's wrath and suffering the consequences of such an act. She had seen the warrior's angry retaliation against anyone who had wronged her. Gabrielle never wanted to have to endure that kind of treatment.

Xena swallowed the mouthful of cheese and waited a moment. She forced a light tone into her voice. "Corinna?" she said to the girl. The green eyes in the young woman's face held a slight level of fear. The warrior took a short breath and moistened her lips.

"Was there something you wanted to ask me?" Xena said to the youngster. She watched the girl push back her fears, then raise her gaze to meet her own. After a moment, Gabrielle shook her head, but her eyes still met the warrior's blue gaze. Xena squirmed a bit under the girl's frightened glance. Finally the woman chuckled lightly and smiled at the youngster.

"You're not much for talking, are you?" she said to the young woman. The girl's soft face lit in a gentle smile. She shrugged her shoulders, embarrassed at the warrior's comment, then resumed her activity straightening the interior of the tent. After a moment, the warrior addressed the girl again.

"Did you eat?" she asked the child.

The girl shook her head, then answered. "After you're done." She turned back to her duties again.

"No, now." the warrior said, breaking off a piece of the cheese brick. The girl turned to stare at the woman at the table. Xena looked to the girl again and motioned toward the small chair at the end of the cot. "C'mon" she repeated. "I want you to eat now. Otherwise, I'm never sure you do. Eat." the warrior said, a commanding tone slipping into her remarks.

Gabrielle stood quietly near her cot. She couldn't refuse to obey the warrior; she didn't want to make her angry. The girl moved the small chair nearer to the table and accepted the wedge of cheese the woman offered her. Then she sat down and took a bite of the food. The cheese tasted good and, Gabrielle had to admit, she was hungry. She kept her eyes on her hands in her lap, but she could feel the warrior woman's gaze on her face.

After a moment, the girl shyly raised her eyes to meet the warrior's scrutiny. The green eyes were simple and honest. The warrior watched the small, young face. An longing within her began to ache against her chest. Xena saw her own absent youth in the girl's expression, a time long lost to her, an innocence never to be regained. She found herself experiencing a strange tenderness toward this proud, diminutive child. It was an affection she hadn't felt for anyone since M'lyla.

The warrior shook her head to clear her thoughts. She broke off a piece of the bread and handed it to the girl. The youngster took the offering and the young face broke into a faint, yet genuine, smile. For some reason, it lightened the warrior woman's heart.

Chapter Eight ~~~

The warrior in the cave stood up abruptly and marched to the far corner of the small enclosure. She wrapped her long, slender arms around her body to try and lessen the wretched anguish in her chest. The pain of this memory was slowly, but surely, undermining her rationality. Every time she thought about Corinna and the girl's eventual destiny, her heart ached.

Why couldn't she turn this memory away? For more than ten years, she had buried the history of this part of her past deep in the resources of her mind. Tonight, it seemed as though something was purposely forcing her to suffer through them again. She had accepted responsibility for the girl's fate long ago. 'Was she to be tortured by the events forever?' her mind lamented.

Her own discomfort was diffused when she heard Gabrielle's painful cry. Xena quickly moved to the girl's side. The young woman also seemed tormented by something. Her eyes were open wide and there was a look of pure terror on the bard's face. The warrior touched the girl's arm and Gabrielle turned to face the blue gaze.

Instantly the girl recoiled from her, physically pulling herself away from Xena. The warrior watched, numb with shock. She reached for the girl. "Gabrielle, what is it?" she asked, her own fear causing her voice to waver.

The girl cowered further back against the wall of the cave, one hand pressed outward in front of her face, as if to shield herself from an oncoming blow. "Don't! Please don't!" she wailed. The green eyes were fixed on Xena's face, horror and dread clearly obvious in the fearful expression.

Xena stared open-mouthed at her friend. A terrible, cruel, paralyzing remembrance was clamoring in her brain. She sat back on her heels, numb with shock and trying wildly to reinstate her awareness. Gabrielle continued to whimper against the wall, her arms now wrapped over her head, her body trembling in fright.

For an agonizing moment, the warrior tried desperately to remain calm. Her heart was pounding and she felt as though someone, or something, was trying to smother her. Xena forced herself to stand up. She stumbled away from the fire, turning her back on the girl and the horrible memory being reenacted before her eyes. Then covered her mouth to stem the wave of nausea rising in her throat and shuffled forward, finally coming into hard contact with the stones of the cave wall.

The horrendous vision was being played out in front of her once more. Xena saw herself discovering the frightened girl in the cave where she'd run to escape the warrior's camp. She saw Corinna cowering away from her. She saw the girl's terrified eyes and heard the identical tragic plea shrieking against the stone walls of the cave. Suffering great pain, the warrior watched the event reoccur, sickened by her own violence and the disgusting rage of her former life.

In her mind, Xena watched herself fling the young girl against the hard, rocky bulwark of the cave, her anger and resentment increasing her strength and masking her discernment. The warrior moaned as she relived the sight of the girl's fragile form slamming headlong into the rocks, then sliding onto the earthen floor, limp and inert. Once again she saw herself bending over the lifeless form, saw her own bloodied hand withdraw from behind the youngster's skull, saw herself once again sink to her knees, sobbing, shaken and repentant.

The entire shattering incident had taken place before her, in exactly the same obscene manner as had occurred that night so many years ago. But in this vision, when she bent over the dead girl's body, Xena saw Gabrielle's face, saw Gabrielle's desecrated form; she saw her most treasured friend lying murdered by her own violence. In the throes of her most torturous nightmare, the warrior whimpered in grief.

Xena sank onto the cave floor, sobbing. She clamped her hands over her ears to shut out the sounds echoing in her memory. Then, deep in the resources of her mind, she heard a chilling, screeching laugh. It brought a cold awareness back to her reason.

Weakly the warrior's senses began to reaffirm reality. She turned once again toward the terrified girl cringing against the wall behind her. Her mind reeled at the sight of Gabrielle's state. Then the rage inside began to awaken her will. This was no simple coincidence, no random recollection. Xena now recognized the source of this grisly apparition. This was the work of an evil, vengeful, dishonorable god.

"Strife", she growled, "you son of a blood-sucking vermin. You ... you're .." The warrior's vehemence seethed within her. She stood up, her fists clenched, her body rigid with anger. "You won't win, you foul dredge." Xena flung herself away from the sobbing girl. "You will not win!!" the warrior screamed.

Xena stopped stone still and took a long, full, controlled breath. She opened her fists and forced herself to relax her jaw. She reached deep within her being, calling up every morsel of her strength, determined to clear her mind and render herself calm. For a long moment, not one sound came from her body. Not one centimeter of her person moved or reacted. Finally, as she approached the peace she sought, she knew she was ready to proceed.

She cast one last look at the girl against the wall. It was Strife's vile manipulation that had corrupted her friend's essence and replaced it with an exact replica, in manner and perception, of Corinna at the moment of the girl's death. Gabrielle had assumed the precise position and attitude of the youngster in Xena's tortured vision, duplicating every detail of the incident including the girl's dreadful plea for mercy.

Xena submerged her own fury in order to secure the openness in her mind that was necessary for her task. She crossed the cave and settled herself on the earthen floor in the corner of the enclosure most shrouded by shadows. Drawing another deep, cleansing breath, Xena closed her eyes and let her arms drop into her lap. Then she emptied her mind and concentrated with every particle of her being on the one personage she knew could help her in this instance. She began to chant the mantra of his name.

"Nikleo" the warrior murmured, her voice low and smooth. "Nikleo, please. I need you." Xena breathed deeply and visualized the man's face. "Please come."

The warrior's body became totally still. Her pulse slowed and her breathing became deep and steady. She waited for her mentor to answer. She locked her mind on his presence. "Nikleo." she chanted once more. Then she saw his face.

The mystic's likeness floated into her view, the representation of his countenance a filmy cloud in front of her. Xena opened her eyes and smiled at the familiar image.

"Hello, Infant" the face said. "You called for me?"

"Nikleo." the warrior's thoughts were warm for the mentor she revered. "I need your help" the warrior said in her mind. "I must save Gabrielle. She's been .."

"I know." the face said to her. "I've felt you all evening." Xena's pulse fluttered in gratitude. "She is in great danger. But you know that, don't you?"

"Yes." Xena answered. "Tell me what to do. Please. I need your help to cleanse and protect her."

Nikleo's image began to tremble, but the warrior deepened her concentration. She saw the gentle eyes and the wise, knowing smile become clear again.. Then he spoke to her.

"I will help you, Infant. But you must know the whole truth." Xena cleared her mind to accept the mystic's words. "This must be your trial. You must endure this alone. No one else can make this journey with you. It must be your heart that fights this demon."

"I'm ready." the warrior told him. "I will do whatever I must to save her."

"You will suffer an agony unlike any you have ever known." Nikleo told her. "Even more painful than your journey to my rooms long ago." The face glimmered at the blue eyes of the woman. "Are you prepared?"

"Yes" she said to him in her thoughts. "She's more important than my life."

The mystic smiled warmly at his student. "You must also know this. It is possible that your visions will return stronger than ever. You must realize...they may finally destroy you after all."

"I'm willing to take the chance if it means freeing Gabrielle."

"Very well." the face told her. "Here is what you must do. Open your mind to me. I will send you the knowledge."

Xena closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She listened as Nikleo told her what she had to do. When he had finished, the warrior felt weak and dazed. But she kept her mind open to him.

Finally the mystic spoke to her again. "For now, you must close your own mind to the guilt and shame. They are the implements of this demon, he uses them against you."

"I know." the warrior murmured.

"Then you must seal away your friend from the control of the evil spirit. Otherwise he will continue to use her pain to coax you back to the side of Blood." Xena felt her anger threatening the calm within her. She pushed it away. Then she opened herself to the image once again.

"How can I do this?" she asked him.

Nikleo answered. As he explained, the warrior shuddered in fear. "But, it will destroy her if I .." she began, frightened.

"No" the mystic assured her. "It will only expunge her from the hate. If she cannot hear your visions, they cannot harm her." Xena felt the trust she had in her mentor's honorable heart. She nodded.

"But, this touch must be released by you, as well. If you do not liberate her in time, she will simply cease to be. Do you understand, Infant? It is very important."

"I understand." Xena whispered.

The face in the mist radiated and Xena felt a warm glow envelope her. She opened her eyes to accept the loving caress.

"Go now, Infant." Nikleo's image said. "Save your friend. I will hold you in my thoughts so that you may be successful." Then the filmy image faded and the glow in the corner of the cave dispersed.

The warrior slumped forward, breaking the trance. She breathed in deeply, renewing her resolve. Then she slowly rose and walked to retrieve her battle garb.

Chapter Nine ~~~

When Xena was again wearing her leather tunic and armor, she turned once more toward the corner of the cave where Nikleo had addressed her. The depth of her admiration for the man filled her heart. Silently, she thanked him again. She turned then and walked to the saddle bags hung on the cave's rocky ledge.

The warrior opened the satchel that contained the various medical implements and withdrew one of the long, heavy needles she used to suture open wounds. She carried the instrument to the fire and laid it carefully on one of the rocks encircling the glowing embers. Then she turned toward Gabrielle. The girl had collapsed in a pathetic heap against the cave wall. The warrior moved toward the subservient figure.

Xena picked up the young woman's trembling body and carried it back to the pile of blankets next the fire. The girl didn't respond to the warrior's touch; there was only lifelessness in the lovely form. She covered Gabrielle with one of the blankets and moved to the other side of the fire. Xena picked up the long needle from the rock where she had placed it. She held it in the flames until the tool began to burn against her fingers. Then she withdrew the object and stood up.

The warrior placed one finger against her own ribcage and traced the cartilage in the way Nikleo had instructed her. When she located the spot he named, she drew a full breath into her lungs and inserted the needle into her body. She gritted her teeth against the pain of the intrusion and slid the instrument into the opening until only the eye of the needle was exposed. Then she knelt down and closed her eyes.

She concentrated on the images her mentor had suggested and soon felt the vestiges of the cold demeanor that had controlled her senses during her days as a combatant. The deep, blue eyes turned hard and gray. Part of Xena's soul recoiled from the callousness she felt overtake her, but in her mind, she knew her actions were justified.

When the warrior stood again, the same chilling rage was in residence in her heart, and the familiar fury burned in her breast. She turned coldly to the sleeping girl. Her heart recognized Gabrielle, as Nikleo had predicted it would. Her affection for the girl had not been altered. But there was a stony purpose in the warrior's manner.

The tall woman retrieved her sword from where it had landed when Strife had flung her against the wall. She carried it back to the spot against the cave wall where she'd been sitting when the villain had first materialized. Then she moved to young woman near the fire.

Xena pulled the blankets away from Gabrielle and knelt down near the girl's shoulders. She lifted Gabrielle's body and settled herself against the young woman's back. Carefully, the warrior put two fingers of one hand against her friend's temple and the companion digits on the other hand against the center of the girl's chest.

Whispering a short, silent prayer, Xena thrust her fingers sharply against the soft flesh. Gabrielle's body stiffened for a instant, then the girl went completely limp. The warrior grimaced at the pain the jabs had caused her friend. She wrapped her arms around the young woman tenderly and bent her head to gently kiss the bard's forehead. Then, holding Gabrielle's body against her own, the warrior stood and lifted the girl up in her arms.

Xena carried the young body back to the space against the wall where the terrible vision had been replayed. She lowered the girl to the earthen floor, then sat down against the wall herself. Once she was in position, Xena pulled Gabrielle upright in front of her. The girl's back now rested heavily against the warrior's chest. The woman placed one long, slender arm across the front of the bard's shoulders and picked up her sword. She waited for the creature she knew would appear soon.

Within moments, Strife materialized, standing before her in the cave. His angry scowl told her that he was not pleased with the way she had disrupted his plans again. The vile creature marched across the enclosure toward where the warrior sat holding the limp body of her friend. As he approached, Xena spun her sword in her hand and positioned the sharp tip of the blade directly over Gabrielle's heart.

"I know what you're up to." he screamed at her, "But it won't work."

Xena's trained a cold stare on the nasty little god's ugly face. "If you don't release her, I'll kill her myself to stop you from hurting her again."

Strife's shrill giggle sounded harshly. "You'd never do that!" he taunted the warrior. "She's your 'friend'." he shrieked, mocking the word and it's meaning. "Even if you have to choose Uncle over the brat, you'd never slice her open."

The warrior's eyes grew brutal and ruthless. "I'd rather put her in the Elysian Fields for eternity than have you torture her for the rest of her life." She drew the sword's tip closer to the young woman's chest. "And I won't let you use me to hurt her either."

The evil little god laughed again, clapping his hands in a maniacal cadence. "Go ahead! Because unless you promise to return to Uncle, she'll suffer forever." The creature crossed his arms in front of him, defiantly goading the warrior.

"I'm never coming back." the warrior spat at him. "You can tell 'Uncle' that." she said, slurring the word repulsively.

Strife paced the cave furiously, his manner contemptuous. He stopped and turned to Xena, his face convulsing in a vengeful leer. "We'll just wait another minute and she'll be dead anyway." he challenged her. "You used your "pinch thing" on her, I saw you. You 'cut off the flow of blood to her brain'", he squealed, mimicking Xena's standard warning to her victims. "In thirty seconds, she'll be dead." Again the disgusting creature defied the warrior's intentions.

Xena's voice was cold and sharp. "If she dies, I die." she told the little god. "What do you think 'Uncle' will say when he learns your little scheme drove me to kill myself rather than return to him?" She waited while the evil creature fumed. "Do you think you'll win his favor with that?"

Strife's angry shriek filled the cave and rang in the warrior's ears. She kept her eyes trained on his chalk-white face.

"I'll kill her myself!" the vile beast threatened. "Then I'll throw a spell on you and you'll go back to Uncle ANYWAY!" For an instant, the little god resembled nothing so much as a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum. Xena labored to keep her own temper in check.

"I'll kill us both before I let that happen." She raised the sword's angle and lifted Gabrielle's chin with the back of her hand. "Either way," the warrior said, "you loose." She watched the fury rise in the little god's eyes. She braced herself for his next assault.

Strife screamed at the warrior again and raised his hands above his head. He flung another shower of light at the two women, trying with all his might to bring Xena's painful memories back into her mind and push them into Gabrielle. Neither woman responded to his attempt. The more he pushed his power toward them, the more successfully they resisted him.

Xena knew the little god would not surrender his hold on Gabrielle too easily. She strained to keep her mind clear and resist his vicious directions. But she knew the time to release Gabrielle was getting closer, more vital. The warrior strove to keep her anxiety about the danger to the girl out of her mind, as well.

For a long moment, the vile little creature battled the warrior's will. He soon realized she was more of an opponent than he could overcome. Suddenly, his frustration exploded in a rage and the pulsing light around them ended. The little god waved a bony finger and Gabrielle's body was lifted away from the warrior's lap while her sword was flung from her hand.

Shrieking in fury, Strife leveled another flash of light at Xena, elevating her body off the floor and high on the wall of the cave. The evil little god intensified the light shooting into the warrior's body, locking the woman against the rocks, her arms outstretched, her feet crossed at the ankle. As Xena screamed in agony, Strife tried again to reinstate her painful, degrading memories to torture her. But the warrior's will was still too strong.

Her body convulsing in pain, Xena called out, "Nikleo!!" Instantly his image formed in her mind. "Rely on the noble heart, Infant." he told her. "Trust the noble heart." his voice said, reaching into her soul.

Xena recognized Nikleo's meaning at once. She began to fill her mind with visions of Gabrielle. She concentrated on the young woman's kindness, her honor and the deep, enduring affection they felt for each other. The light from Strife's fingers began to flicker. The little god was surprised, and suddenly felt very vulnerable.

Pulling the girl's image around her like a cloak, Xena gathered every morsel of strength left in her being. With a great final effort, she repelled the ugly thoughts Strife had tried to inflict on her and thrust them back at him instead. The little god shrieked and tried to defend himself. He realized he couldn't maintain his hold on the warrior and remain safe at the same time. He knew he was beaten.

Strife released the warrior and her body fell from the wall in a crumpled heap. As the vile creature's image left the cave, his screams echoed through the enclosure.

"This isn't over, you mortal bitch! I'll make you pay some day." Then he was gone.

Xena desperately tried to move. She had to reach Gabrielle. "No more time left." the warrior whispered. "No more time." She forced her tortured body to respond. Painfully Xena dragged herself over to Gabrielle and pressed her fingers against the girl's neck, releasing the touch as her mentor had told her. She saw the girl pull in a giant breath, filling her lungs with air. Then the warrior collapsed on the earthen floor, unconscious.

Chapter Ten ~~~

Sunshine glittered outside the cave. The storm had left the foliage crisp and refreshed. The sounds made by the inhabitants of the forest filtered into the cave, creating a restful serenade that soothed the warrior's tired soul. She listened to the gentle creatures' symphony and the peaceful melody nourished her grateful heart.

Xena sat near the remains of the fire, quietly watching Gabrielle enjoy a small bowl of thick broth. The girl was sitting up, looking rested and obviously feeling better. The warrior kept her eyes on the young woman, thankful that the girl seemed to have survived the ordeal mostly unharmed and blissfully unaware.

Gabrielle emptied the small bowl and cast a sheepish look at the warrior. The girl could see the exhaustion in her friend's face and noticed the raw, open scrapes on the woman's arms and legs. But the blue eyes trained on her were warm and loving.

Xena reached to take the bowl from the girl's hands. "More?" she asked, using a wooden spoon to stir the contents of the small pot hanging over the embers. She turned back to the bard's green gaze, awaiting an answer.

"No, thanks" Gabrielle said. "Not right now anyway." The young woman watched as Xena pulled the spoon out of the pot. The warrior put the bowl and the implement down on the rocks surrounding the fire. Then she lifted the small pot away from the fire and set it down next to the tools.

Xena rose from her position near the girl and mutely grimaced at the soreness still present in her body. Without meeting the green eyes she knew were focused on her, she moved to a spot against the cave wall.

"Well, if you get hungry again, let me know." the warrior said, then sat back stiffly against the stones behind her.

Gabrielle's expression showed the concern she felt for her friend's obvious discomfort. "Are you all right?" the girl asked. She watched the warrior settle back, struggling to find a painless position. Finally Xena turned a tired glance toward the bard.

"I'm fine. Just stiff from sitting up all night. I'm going to try and sleep now. If you need anything, ..." the warrior began.

"I don't." the girl said, finishing the comment. "You rest now. You look like you could use it." The bard's tone was still somewhat worried, but she knew her friend well enough to know when not to push. She saw the blue eyes close, then open again to meet hers.

"You, too." Xena said in a tired voice. "You've been quite sick, you know." A warm smile crept across the warrior's face. "I'll be right here, if you need me."

The bard smiled back at her friend. The blue eyes closed again and the warrior heaved an exhausted sigh. Gabrielle waited a moment longer, then snuggled back down under the layer of blankets. After another moment, the girl began to feel drowsy. The warmth of the broth lulled her senses and she began to submit to the fatigue she still felt from the fever.

Within minutes, Gabrielle was asleep. The sound of her steady breathing filled the small enclosure. The warrior listened to the tranquil rhythm. When she was certain the girl was truly asleep, the blue eyes opened again. Xena turned her head slightly toward the young woman's quiet form. Her throat caught tightly at the sight of her dearest friend.

'Why does she stay with me?' the warrior thought to herself. 'What keeps her nearby, even when being here puts her in danger most of the time?' The clear, blue eyes slowly filled with tears. The exertion of the previous night's ordeal and the spirit-shattering confrontation with Strife made the warrior's body ache. But now her heart was filled with torment at the prospect of bringing any nature of harm to the treasured person who now slept peacefully near the fire's embers.

'And look at the pain I've caused her. How I've hurt her, broken her heart. Why does she stay?' the voice in her head asked again. The warrior's own heart was aching.

Slowly Gabrielle opened her eyes. She blinked away the drowsiness that had pushed her into sleep and turned in response to the voice she recognized. It was the voice of the woman whose nearness and friendship she valued most on earth. When her eyes met those of the warrior leaning quietly against the wall, she noticed the tears glistening in the deep, azure orbs.

For a moment, neither gaze moved from the one whose glance she held. Then the blue eyes of the warrior pulled away to focus on the opening of the cave. The green eyes of the girl remained on the tall woman's anguished expression. Then the two sets met again.

A gentle smile began to grow across the young woman's face. Wordlessly she gathered one of the blankets around herself and moved to sit beside the warrior. Xena watched the girl's approach. Somehow she was rendered immobile. Without knowing exactly why, she stopped herself from moving away. She closed her eyes to cover the meddlesome uneasiness she felt.

Gabrielle snuggled close to the tall, slender woman and draped the blanket over the two of them. She turned to glance up at the warrior's stoic face. As she watched, a single tear emerged from beneath the ring of long, dark lashes and traveled down over the smooth, lovely face. The girl reached up with one small hand to wipe the moisture away. Finally Xena turned to look into the open face beside her. She swallowed against the tightness in her throat.

The girl laid her head against the warrior's slender arm. Under the blanket, Xena felt the warmth of the young body next to hers. She took in a slow, wavering breath and squeezed the fingers laying gently against her palm. She tilted her head until it came to rest on the soft, blond tresses at her shoulder.

"I made a pledge to you that first day." the girl said softly. "On the road outside Amphipolis." The bard raised her eyes to meet those of the warrior. "I told you, 'That's what friends do. They stand by each other when there's trouble'." The clear, blue eyes traveled over the girl's gentle face. "Do you remember?" the young woman asked.

"I remember." the warrior answered. "Thanks, again. Friend." Then the warrior smiled.

~~~The End~~~

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